Towards the Eternal Center: Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple

Presented by The Library of JTS
Exhibition Dates: March 5 - June 27, 1996
Online selections available indefinitely

The Land of Israel is situated in the center of the world, and Jerusalem in the center of the Land of Israel, and the Holy Temple in the center of Jerusalem...
(Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim 10)

This expressive midrash characterizes three spiritual centers of the world upon which countless generations of Jews have projected their hopes and dreams. The desire to reach these centers permeates almost every aspect of Judaism: its thought, custom and liturgy. The importance of these locations is emphasized even in the rules governing prayer; Jews in the Diaspora face Israel, Jews in Israel face Jerusalem, and Jews in Jerusalem face the Temple.

In a heroic effort to capture the physical and spiritual significance of these three centers, scholars, travelers and inhabitants of the Holy Land have produced a vast array of manuscripts, printed books, letters, prints and maps. These tangible artifacts of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple serve as more than geographical descriptions or historical records; their many variations reveal the chroniclers' desire to synthesize the temporal and the spiritual. When the noted French author Reme Chateaubriand entered Jerusalem in 1806, he poetically described this gap between a physical report and a spiritual perception and he reflected on the difficulty of a complete description of Jerusalem.

Then I understood what the historial and travelers reported of the surprise of the Crusaders and pilgrims at their first sight of Jerusalem. I am certain that whoever has had the patience, as I did, to read nearly two hundred modern accounts of the Holy Land, the rabbinic collections, and the passages of the ancients on Judea, would still understand nothing. I stood there, my eyes fixed on Jerusalem, measuring the heights of its walls, recalling all the memories of history from Abraham to Godfrey of Bouillon. . .If I were to live a thousand years, never would I forget this wilderness which still seems to breathe with the grandeur of the Lord and the terrors of death.

Pictorial representations and descriptive words attempt to capture the full spirit of a land that for so long has been the subject of such varying expectations; even a consensus of its history is impossible to come by. This exhibition views the Holy Land through an exploration of the images and words created during the last six centuries. Towards the Eternal Center is divided into three sections: Israel depicted in maps, Jerusalem represented in manuscripts, rare printed books and postcards, and the Temple depicted in prints and mizrahs.

(images 1-3)
Despite the development of a scientific approach towards map-making, it should be remembered that maps are a cartographic representation of a reality. Maps may be viewed as a form of visual communication, a rhetoric of symbols used to express spatial, territorial, political and religious relationships. Color, shape and composition communicate as much about the community for which these maps were produced as the space they describe. Maps of the Holy Land often served as guides for religious history, illustrating biblical episodes, the territorial boundaries of the Twelve Tribes and the wanderings of the Jews in the desert. Maps produced for Christians illustrated holy sites and assisted pilgrims and travelers in their journeys.

(images 4-10)
Jewish and Christian travel literature reveals invaluable social histories regarding the living conditions, inhabitants and perils of traveling in medieval Europe and the Middle East. Rabbinic texts produced in Jerusalem attest to the continuing role of the Holy City as a spiritual center even during times of abject poverty and persecution. Accounts of the daily life: letters, pleas for assistance and yeshiva annals provide significant historical records. Charming and imaginative visions of Jerusalem executed by Jewish scribe/artists of Europe appear in a selection of illuminated eighteenth-century manuscripts. The expanding culture of Jerusalem is manifest in the resurgence of Jerusalem's printing industry in the nineteenth century and in the colorful depictions of the city and its inhabitants in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century postcards.

The Temple
(images 11-12)
The image of the Temple is virtually impossible to separate from the concept of Jerusalem. The belief that a rebuilt Temple signifies the Messianic era, a time when the city of Jerusalem will be the center of the world, permeates the philosophy of Judaism. Whether shown in schematic prints or micrographic mizrahs, as the Temple of Solomon or as the Third Temple to be built in the time of Messiah, the image of the Temple has remained woven into the fabric of the culture of the Jewish people.